The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 5 months ago

Three Non-commissioned officers queue up to dispel the myths, respond to the critics, end the rumors, and weigh in on rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq. 

On December 6, I published Politically Correct Rules of Engagement Endanger Troops.  This article touched quite the raw nerve, and since the time of publication I have received many communications from various interested parties, some of them with direct knowledge of the things discussed in the article.  I stated in the comments to the article that I would update the discussion with future posts, and this is my second installment on the subject of rules of engagement.  Some of the communications I received from members of the military were literally stunning, and I will focus on two such communications in this article, specifically, from NCOs who were in Iraq and who are familiar with rules of engagement and the affect they have on U.S. troops.

Introduction and Background

Necessarily preliminary to this discussion is an understanding of why it is acceptable to discuss such things in the open.  Does detail on this topic not constitute an OPSEC (operational security) violation?  This question has been posed to me on other articles I have written.  More specifically, regarding my article Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops, it was stated to me by one reader that the free flow of information concerning the military may be likened to the Roman roads.  The same roads the Roman armies used to build the Roman empire were used by invading armies to end it.  And as a result of the seed article to this one (on ROE), it was said to me that while it may not have been intentional, the affect of my article on rules of engagement was like the affect Jane Fonda had during her visit to North Vietnam.  I had broken the “loose lips sinks ships” rule, and it had a detrimental affect on our ability to wage war.  I must confess, I have never been compared to Jane Fonda before.

In the two articles cited above, I used only MSM reports, and tried to weave a cohesive story together from the several reports that had been filed.  One of the virtues of blogging is that a vast array of reports and other information is available to the self-initiated analyst to observe trends and other characteristics of the reports.  This fairly accurately describes the two aforementioned articles.  Nothing original existed in them.  If this information is available to me, then it is most certainly available to the enemy.  More to the point, the only way, for instance, for the MSM to be able to write that the enemy knows the ROE of U.S. troops is to get the story directly from U.S. troops.  The story is there with U.S. troops because they see it and live it daily.  The U.S. troops get the story from the enemy.  Hence, the enemy already knows the information.

To assert that a blogger with third hand knowledge of the enemy interactions with U.S. troops (e.g., dropping their weapons just prior to engagement, and then walking away when the ROE prohibits U.S. troops from engaging), packaging them up coherently, and commenting on them for several hundred people to read constitutes “loose lips” is akin to suggesting that your family accountant is responsible for the latest Congressional vote to raise taxes.  Put simply, “that dog won’t hunt.”

Additionally, there is a difference between written ROE (most of which the grunt is not allowed to read), and the implementation in the field.  Commercial jet airliners have manuals, but reading them, no matter how studiously, doesn’t qualify a person to pilot the aircraft.  The two parties most qualified to understand how ROE affects U.S. troops are U.S. troops themselves and the enemy.  The enemy sees them.  The enemy fights them.  They see the actual ROE in the field, and the claim that somehow a blog can affect what the enemy is watching on the ground is not compelling.

What honest, open and serious debate can do is make the general public aware of things that they would otherwise not have time to research for themselves.  Finally, a post like this can serve to open and continue dialogue and debate within the military ranks on a subject that involves many raw nerves and, based on the reports below, causes an impediment to achieving the mission objectives.

I hope that this post serves as a catalyst to those ends.  Concerning the two NCOs I cite below, I have done my investigative homework to verify that they are who they say they are; e-mail from *.mil network domains, independent verification from MSM accounts and other sources that the units they said that they were part of were indeed deployed to the locations and at the times that they claimed.  Finally, one word is redacted from the first account for sensibilities, and per agreement with one of the NCOs, the dates, unit designations and locations are redacted from the second account (for reasons that will not be disclosed here).  The language is “crusty,” and so the reader has been warned.

I would like to express my personal gratitude and sincere humility that these respected NCOs felt that they could share their experiences with me.  I am honored beyond what I can express here in words.

The NCOs Speak

From an NCO who was deployed in the Kirkuk area for approximately one year.

Our ROE was simple. The right to self defense was never denied. The ROE was based on a method of determining a life threatening scenario from a non-life threatening one. We called this the “Escalation Of Force.” Show, Shout, Shove, and Shoot. It’s pretty self explanatory and easy to follow in a perfect world. The problem is that the world isn’t perfect.

Scenario: You’re a gunner on an M2 .50 caliber machine gun mounted atop a M1114 Up-Armored HMMWV. You are the last vehicle and you are pulling rear security. A vehicle in the distance is swerving through traffic on a mission from God and closing on your convoy quickly. You wave your arms to get the driver’s attention to no avail. You yell obscenities at the crazy Iraqi while drawing down on the vehicle with your large caliber, fully automatic, machine gun. Hell, you even throw your water bottle hoping to get the hood on a bounce. Nothing. You notice a male driver who appears to be gripping the wheel a little too tight and who has beads of sweat forming on his brow. You realize that this could be trouble. But… to complicate the matter, there is a woman (presumably his wife) and 4 children in the car as well. The vehicle is fast approaching… and you have a mere second to react. Your buddy’s, nay, family’s lives are on the line behind you. They trust you to make the right decision. What do you do?

Option 1: Warning shots. Sure. Can work. Collateral damage becomes an issue, and high ranking military personnel HATE such paperwork.

Option 2: Wait it out. This choice is putting the lives of a “civilian” before the lives of your military “family.”  I wholeheartedly disagree with this choice, but it keeps you out of Leavenworth.

Option 3: Stop the vehicle by any means necessary. Shoot ‘em up and ensure the safety of your family who depends on you.

Now with any of these options you find out in the end that either… A) Vehicle drives right on by and through the convoy, apparently the wife was in labor and they were speeding to the hospital. B) Vehicle drives right by you and slams into middle vehicle as 5 155mm Mortar rounds detonate the vehicle killing 3, wounding 4 and truly screwing up your day.

So, you don’t know if a pregnant wife is being rushed to the hospital or a family of insane insurgents are preparing to destroy you.

That is a lot of responsibility to be put on an 18 year old private sitting behind an uber powerful machine gun. That’s why our armed forces are so wonderful. We have 18 year old kids who can and do make those decisions daily. What a wonderful country we were born in.

You make the wrong move and kill civilians though, you not only have to live with the mistake, but you will be ridiculed unmercifully by the media/big army. You will be buried in proceedings and paperwork the remainder of your deployment, and you will not be the same. Your buddies will be affected as well. Cpl. X will see how bad it could be to make the wrong decision, and will hesitate just a hair too long when there is a real threat… and more men will die. The fear of failure leads to hesitation, and hesitation in war is a lesser form of suicide.

That, in my opinion, is the problem. This is not a war. The enemy does not wear uniforms, and therefore the Geneva Convention is null and void instead of applicable.

My unit, as well as the thousands of other soldiers in our area dealt with these problems on a daily basis. The “details” of the ROE changed daily. Some examples… For a time, the gunners would bring buckets full of rocks into the turret with them to throw through the windshields of vehicles not adhering to our warnings to stay away (that ended quickly after command had to pay for numerous windshields). We put signs in Arabic/Kurdish/Turkish on the backs of the vehicles warning them to stay away. We fired warning shots. We did nothing. We drove in the center of the road and dominated our routes by running ignorant drivers right off the road. We drove with the flow of traffic and narrowly averted disaster numerous times.

From another NCO who was deployed in Ramadi for about a year.

The ROE is a politically based cover your ass piece of paper.  It has caused American deaths and really hurt our ability to actually DO anything …

The full ROE is classified, but soldiers are given a small 1 or so page excerpt.  It is stressed that the ROE is not do be divulged or given out to anyone not in uniform, but is more of an FOUO at our level (for official use only) … They [the grunts] are told they can always defend themselves, but then given warning of “overdefending” themselves. 

So yes, from the grunts on the field perspective … the ROE is vague and limiting.  And every time “violations” of the ROE came up it caused our soldiers and marines to question their actions and sometimes cause casualties. If you look up the case of the [unit redacted] Soldier from the [location redacted] region you will see an excellent example.  The [unit redacted] Soldiers started pulling back after that, and even though he eventually had the charges dropped it caused problems throughout the entire Battalion.

And without going into specifics if you look at [date redacted] incident when we lost two Marine pilots and an Army Lt north of [location redacted] you will see another example of how fear of ROE kept us from hitting an enemy until after he had fired at us (and led to a downed helo and an IEDed hummer).  And it was almost much worse.  We dropped two 500 lb bombs a little later and stopped the insurgents from a planned attack that might have led to even more deaths.  And we almost didn’t do that because of ROE.

Analysis and Commentary

These reports parallel the report documented in a recent article at Blackfive by another NCO:

Let me tell you a little something about ROE (Rules of Engagement). In Baghdad thousands of people are moving around all the time. Many houses, all of them, have guns. On a general scale, none of them are planning any wrongdoing at all. But they don’t think that Americans can accomplish anything, either, because they know we can’t search at will, can’t shoot at will, can’t detain at will.

If you wish to stop a car approaching a checkpoint, you must first post a sign a long way down the road, if it is ignored, you must verbally warn them, and use a green laser to get the drivers attention. If still ignored, you must fire a warning shot with an M4, then a M240, then, finally the kill shot. If at any time the car turns away, all you can do is TRY to pursue it, never shoot at it. Technically, similar rules exist for dismounted operations, and that puts more soldiers at risk than you can possibly imagine. I’m not sure Johnny on the street has this information, but Muhammed in the mosque sure does.

I can’t even tell you how pissed it makes me to hear a JAG officer suck in breath as he tries to think real hard how to explain the murky depths of our ROE. A system that used to be a way of allowing soldiers to avoid hurting civilians by using certain weapon systems at certain times has once again degenerated into a complex “Cover Your Ass? legal trick for higher command.

This explanation, along with the second NCO I cite above, possibly explains why I received so many site visits from attorneys to my previous article on ROE.  Using Google Analytics, I can tell what network domain is being used to access my site.  The day I posted my first article on ROE I received more visits from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Adminstrative Court than I did from the Pentagon and CENTCOM combined (although many more from Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine network domains than either of the above … possibly a very informative statistic about who is truly concerned about ROE).

It has been said that the mission of U.S. troops more closely resembles that of policing than of making war, and so U.S. activities are so-called “Military Operations Other Than War.”  But even this explanation suffers in light of the facts.  Police are allowed to fire on criminals who are fleeing the scene of a crime.  The ROE for U.S. troops does not allow the use of deadly force to protect property (not essential to the mission, based on CJCSI 3121.01A, or Chairmain of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction; information on version .01B cannot be located, but it is assumed that this stricture has not changed).  It has been said that when the looting began of the Baghdad museum, the U.S. forces had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the kind of security the population could expect to see.  Unfortunately, our ROE prohibited U.S. forces from engaging the looters, thus giving the worst possible object lesson to the population.

The “softer” approach to counterinsurgency warfare (COIN) has it supporters at the Pentagon, and the “proportionality” doctrine of just war theory is served by a small footprint and minimum force projection (as is other doctrines, such as avoidance of collateral damage and safety of non-combatants).  Just war theory was developed by Cicero and given Christian trappings by Augustine.  But a slightly more deontological approach was developed by Calvin and Aquinas, a doctrine that professor Darrell Cole calls Good Wars.  Rather than emphasis on proportionality, one sees heavy emphasis on the state as the minister of justice and the protector of its citizens, this protection being paramount in doctrinal considerations.  There is no appeal to principles higher than this.

So there is an argument that the existing ROE is in place due to legalities as discussed above, but there are also true believers in the small footprint and soft glove to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”  This issue is made more complicated by the involvement and importance of ROE not just at the tactical level, but the strategic and even doctrinal level as well.

In the end, the most compelling witness to the success or failure of a strategy is the effect on the ground.  Rules of engagement have a strategic import in that the lack of proper ROE will always cause doctrine to become mute and tactics to fail.  The testimony of three respected NCOs is that the current ROE are not only not helpful, but that they are a hindrance and impediment to accomplishment of mission objectives.  Thus, the strategic importance of ROE.  ROE cannot cause us to win, but they can sure cause us to lose.  It is well-said by Victor Davis Hanson (albeit in more macroscopic notions):

I haven’t engaged much in the parlor game of identifying mistakes in the occupation, because none of them (and there were many) reached a magnitude of those in World War II (e.g., daylight bombing without fighter escort in 1942-3, intelligence failures about the hedgerows, surprise at the Bulge, etc) or Korea (surprise at the Yalu). Nor were any fatal to our cause, despite the ‘disbanding’ of the army, Abu Ghraib, etc. If there were any serious blunders, they concerned the sense of hesitation that gave our enemies confidence—the sudden departure of Gen. Franks, the pullback from first Fallujah, the reprieve given Sadr, etc. In other words, once we were in a war, whatever public downside there was to using too much force was far outweighed by losing our sense of control and power, and ceding momentum to the terrorists. So we can learn from that, and begin again cracking down hard on the insurgents before calling for more troops.

There will be those who say that the NCOs are not privy to things necessary to understand ROE, or who say that they exaggerated, or any of a host of other things.  These things may be said by institutional military, and may even be said from the safety and warmth of an office or living room while typing on a computer.  But wishing it doesn’t make it so.  The NCOs have weighed in, and they have done so without equivocation.

When self-defense is considered to be a subset of unit self defense, and when the commanding officer can restrict the right of individual self defense, the ROE are in need of revision.  But the argument at Blackfive is salient.  Were it not for media pressure on the war in Iraq, there might be no need for the current ROE.  The public has yet to realize that immaculate warfare does not exist.

The problem has many ingredients.  One part media pressure, one part ROE in need of revision, one part military brass seeking protection, and one part public expectations for modern warfare combined with waning support for the war, and the result is a witch’s brew of problems for U.S. troops.

As we visit in the homes of friends and family this Christmas season and partake of good food, good company, good drink and good cheer, the more thoughtful among us might discuss “just wars” and “good wars,” and doctrine, strategy and tactics.  But as we do, remember to say a prayer for our troops.  While we eat and drink and converse, a marine or soldier hurts.  His feet hurt.  His back hurts.  His knees hurt.  He is very cold … or very hot.  He is lonely for home.  He is exhausted and never gets enough sleep.  And he is expected to apply counterinsurgency warfare in conditions where the nature of the battle has far outrun just war theory – where insurgents hide behind women and children – and turn our own ROE against us as a tactic of war.

**** UPDATE ****

Welcome to Instapundit, NRO and Blackfive readers.  Feel free to drop comments, but please be courteous.  I let comments and trackbacks happen automatically and without human intervention.  Posting of a comment does not constitute agreement or approval of the content by me.  However, be aware that after spending 15 minutes on a comment, you might have it deleted based on site ROE of which only I am aware.  \sarcasm on\ When the full ROE is divulged to the enlisted ranks, I will divulge my ROE for deleting comments \sarcasm off\

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  • Curt

    Police are allowed to fire on criminals who are fleeing the scene of a crime.

    Completely false. The only time we as police officers are allowed to discharge our weapon is to stop an immediate life threatening threat to yourself or other’s…thats it. If I were to shoot someone fleeing I would be looking at prison time.

    The only time you may be justified is if someone just murdered a family of 5 for example and is trying to get away, if you feel that this person would kill again if you did not stop him immediately then you may be able to justify it…but it would not be easy.

    Other then that this is a great post.

  • http://smallwarsjournal Carl

    This post touches on a problem that has bedeviled American police for years and now plauges US troops in Iraq: how do you stop a moving car without shooting it, and the occupants, up?

    I don’t know how much research is being done to solve this problem or what success it is having but it seems to be an area that should receive more emphasis. If a way could be found to do this, it would have not only an immediate benificial effect in Iraq, it would make the life of American police officers a whole lot easier.

    I know this won’t make a difference in Iraq, but in the U.S., in most of the chases that I have knowledge of, the officers were able to get with 10 feet of the vehicle or actually touch it. Maybe this observation would help a designer.

    100% agree with Curt’s comments.

  • James Mayhall

    It seems to me that everyone providing testimonials in this discussion assumes that Iraqi civilians bear no responsibility for their behavior toward Coalition forces. Perhaps the reason for that assumption is worry about pressure from news services and the brass. If so, those who author and implement ROE have an obligation to clarify when threatening behavior crosses a threshold that justifes a lethal response. For example, in the case of the machine gunner who is rear guard for a convoy, I simply cannot imagine that this soldier has not been given the means to signal an approaching vehicle that a closer approach will result in a lethal response. It is the duty of the military to provide such a means and to widely publicize their existence. In the state of Florida, if a police officer steps in front of your vehicle and orders you to stop, but you hit the gas, you will get shot. Everyone is quite familiar with this fact. I simply cannot imagine that similar rules of engagement cannot be devised for our soldiers in Iraq. The fact that no such rules have been devised shows that a very serious failure has taken place.

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  • Mike Rentner

    Herschel, again you confuse the ROE with the conduct of the war. You confuse the ROE with individual soldiers and Marines being afraid of political backlash.

    Again I will point out that even with the most liberal of ROE, the result would be the same. If the ROE permitted our men to shoot at anything whenever they wanted to, there would still be a political backlash. If the ROE were so permissive to allow a Marine or soldier to shoot at an approaching car or leaving car, or stationary car with no need for rationale, and it gets caught on camera, you can be sure that CNN will air it and the investigations will commence. Note that each NCO already says that he does have the authority to make a decision to shoot if he deems he is in danger.

    So you are chasing a red herring still. What you are complaining about is the war, not the ROE. This is the war we have. You can either like it or not like it, but absent a major policy shift at the level of the commander in chief, this is how it must be fought.

    I’d love to see that shift, I’d love to leave Iraq alone and use it as a springboard to threaten Iran and others, at which time the ROE in Iraq will be pretty much overcome by events. But until then, we have a counter-insurgency, and there is no getting around that basic fact. We have to have reasonable rules, we have reasonable rules, and that’s that. Wishing that changing the ROE will change the results of using force will not make it so.

    The examples you cite from these very articulate NCO’s are very typical. In almost every case, the NCO’s were free to make a good decision, and it were not challenged in that authority. But when there is a killing, because of the CNN factor, there must be an investigation.

    Your real complaint is not with the ROE, which are quite reasonable for the war we’re in. Your real complaint is with the dominant American culture which hasn’t yet understood that we’re at war, that is squeamish that people are killed by Americans and demand a blood-free war. Your real complaint is with the media who sell advertising space by provoking anti-war sentiments.

  • Michael Fumento

    I think lost in all this (or perhaps I read too quickly) is that there are two sets of ROE. There is the overall ROE, which can be tightened but not loosened. Then there are ROEs that may apply to cities or specific military units. I’d guess most of the problems are with the latter. In the all-important effort to win hearts and minds (and CYA) some of these are pretty ridiculous. For example, on my first trip to Ramadi I discovered minarets were being used as sniper positions. To this day, all minarets make me nervous, including some I saw in Spain. I asked why we couldn’t just station Iraqi Police at the entrance to check for nothing more than rifles — easily done even under a flowing robe. “No way!” came the answer. The people of Ramadi would resent us. I simply don’t believe that. Anyway, in other places it’s being done. So we do need to distinguish between “macro” and “micro” ROEs.

  • Ron

    In the first NCO’s comments, he mentions that Option 2 will keep you out of Leavenworth. What he fails to mention is that it may put you in Arlington. Where would you rather have your wife and kids (and your military family) visit you?

  • Mike Rentner

    James Mayhall,

    There have been many different ways that have been used to signal cars to stop. Noises, pen flares, shooting, etc. The problem is that Iraqis often behave very irrationally. Instead of stopping, they think that if they accelerate they can magically win the confrontation. There’s no doubt that they see and hear warnings, in many instances, they just refuse to believe them.

    This isn’t usually the case of the enemy not stopping, it’s usually a nice neighborhood family. And it’s tragic when these nice people get holes in the head of their children. No one wants that, and it happens too often.

    Americans, or people in countries that are accustomed to a semblance of the rule of law would have no problems. But these are people in a country that has had no rule of law for a long time. The easy solution is to blame them and just kill them for their mistakes, and there’s a valid argument for that way to go, but it still won’t change the CNN factor.

  • Russ

    Mike Rentner,

    Having led a rifle company over there, I can definitely understand the perception the soldiers have. We seem to have lawyers running the war, and just the threat of an ivestigation for a split second decision, even if they will be eventually exonerated, is enough to cause hesitation.

    A question – not meant to be insulting, just to know your perspective – have you ever been shot at on either an offensive operation or a defensive operation over there. I know you said you’re in the Marines, so I wonder what you job is. I’ll go back over as an S3, but I’ve done some time on the street and kicking down doors(Kifl, al Hillah, Karbala, Baghdad, then Mosul). Where were your engagements?

  • Robert B

    What you are missing (and those with the “Leavenworth vs. Arlington” argument are missing as well) is that by violating ROE designed to minimize casualties to civilians, you may have personally avoided Arlington, but you doomed two more soldiers to die later.

    How is that? Well, every Iraqi I even knew has a little bit of a family thing going on, know what I mean? Accidentally fire him up (or his brother/dad/uncle/cousin/sister/mom etc), and you have created at least four *new* insurgency supporters, and probably 1-2 *new* insurgents.

    Now, work on that math.

    It means that instead of getting out in 12 months, we’re still there. Pretty simple. The guys who, accidentally or intentionally, violated ROE in 2003 directly contributed to the deaths of an unknown number of Americans (because some number are just flat-out accidents, and you can’t change that) in 2005 and 2006…and…and…and…


    Violate ROE, kill innocents, and you’re going to get an American killed down the line. Pretty simple.


  • Herschel Smith


    Thanks for dropping by my friend. Your point is good, as always. The post doesn’t go far enough to pull this thread about distinguishing between micro- and macro-ROE (I doubt I could keep my readers that long). I do lodge a complaint concerning macro-ROE. I have in two posts now. My complaint is that of the revision in version .01B to make individual self-defense a subset of unit self defense, and to give the CO the authority to restrict the right of individual self defense. This, in my opinion, adds nothing to ROE but confusion. Then, there is the issue of micro-ROE. Your instance of minarets is interesting, and had I conversed with you on this, I probably would have tried to address this in the post. Based on what you said, it appears that there is an issue with the application of micro-ROE as well.

    A minaret is the perfect place for a sniper to hang out. The word I am hearing is that there are two kinds of shooters in Ramadi now. The first is the Saddam loyalist, Fedayeen, who uses an AK-47, shoots from the hip, and usually hits nothing with his spray. Then there is the trained sniper, the mercenary from other parts of the world who is making big money in Anbar sniping. This is the kind that is dangerous.

  • Ron

    B, I understand your point and it’s certainly valid. Doesn’t the hesitation caused by the ROEs, as mentioned several times above, also doom other soldiers? I’ll admit that I haven’t deployed (yet) and I don’t have anything close to the experience that others commenting on these blogs have. It just seems like we’re tying our own hands behind our back sometimes, and it’s costing lives now.

  • James Mayhall

    Mike Rentner. You do not address the point about advertising. Can’t our military buy ads on Al-Jazeera explaining our rules of engagement? A war is supposed to change the behavior of our enemies and the population in which they live. Are you claiming that eliciting rational behavior from Iraqi citizens is a practical impossibility?

  • Twok

    The fifth-column left will not permit the US military to have the tools it needs to win the war.

    Changing the rules of engagement will not be permitted, as the left is on the enemies’ side.


    I would be interested in steering the discussion toward what a good ROE would be and how to attain and maintain it.

    How much force can soldiers exercise during an occupation of this type before their use of force is used as propaganda against them? And what role do the media play in this.

    I believe that the US has been sold out by the US media, both news and entertainment, and this is a contributing factor to the silly ROE we have.

    On a personal level, i always like to ask people who say “I support the troops” (just before they rant against the war) if they support the troops being able to use the force necessary to protect themselves and win the war. It tends to shine the truth on thier true opinion of the troops.

    A secondary issue after the ROE is the rules for detaining suspected insurgents and the differences in treatment they get if the Iraqi’s or the occupation forces capture them. Namely they seem to get much softer treatment and easier release if US forces nab them. This sort of catch and release is in the same vein as the ROE.

  • Mike Rentner

    James Mayhall,

    I’d much rather expand the war and destroy Al Jazeera. That’s what I mean by saying the ROE are fine, it’s the overall war policies that are bad. In a war where information operations are our greatest weakness, we are neither taking effective IO action ourselves, nor are we taking effective action to limit the enemy’s IO. But that is not a factor of the ROE.


    Yes, I’m an S-6, but I’ve been on many combat operations (Operation Sword, Operation New Market, Operations in Kubaysa, Haqlaniyah, etc.) and I’ve been shot at a couple times. One time I and a few others took about 20 or so rounds from what was probably an AK-74, which is a bit unusual over there. Some of the rounds passed within a few feet of me, others were a little further off. It’s a good thing the muj often have such bad aim. No, I didn’t shoot back because I couldn’t tell which of two houses the fire was coming from. I never had the misfortune of being hit by an IED, but I’ve carried more than my share of dead Marines and hope to never have that need again. There were a lot of people in my battalion that did a lot more, which is to be expected, but I got around a bit. But I have to ask, do I lose logic points if I’ve never been shot at?

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  • dw

    So long as it is more important to avoid civilian casualties than to win the war, the war cannot be won. The enemy is able to exploit this self-imposed cripple to prevent effective action.

  • dw

    Robert B:

    We’re really, really good at killing bad guys when we have the will to do so.

    All of them, including brothers.

  • Russ


    I might sound shallow here, but I do feel that there is a certain amount of credibility lost when someone tries to make a judgement about a combat situation having never been in one. The uncertainty, the apprehension, the worry you are sending people to die, is all very difficult to understand, especially in the context of the ROE, unless you have experienced it first hand. I’m not saying that excuses any kind of egregious behavior, just that it lends context.

    I’m glad you came through it safe. I hope all our soldiers do the same. However, investigations over every shooting endanger that. I mean, we are talking about a war. And, no, I don’t mean that there aren’t horrible things that some of our soldiers do, but I like to think of war crimes the same way I think about pornography – it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. However, holding an investigation, even if it ultimately reveals nothing, over a soldier’s head is going to cause hesitation. We can say all we like that it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s human nature.

    Bruce Willis said it best – The Army is a broadsword, not a scalpel. However, we are trying to use it as a scalpel over there, and our enemies are taking advantage of that.

  • Russ


    You don’t stop an insurgency by wishing him well. The people might stop supporting him, but he will still try to kill. No amount of happy thoughts will alter that.

  • Mike Rentner

    Russ, I can’t disagree with a single word you said.

  • Herschel Smith


    Please contact me offline at the e-mail address given on the web site.

  • Fox3

    Gen. Curtis LeMay: “If you kill enough of them, they stop fighting”.

    Seems clear enough to me…

  • Evan Santo

    #9 James –

    You put your finger on why warnings don’t work with Iraqis. In the Arab world there is an overwhelming sense of fatalism, EVERYTHING is Allah’s Will, negating the need for personal responsibility. They do not understand simple cause and effect relationships between actions and consequences, therefore the only law-and-order that ever works in that part of the world is the brutality of strongmen. We have a very big problem, its name is Islam.

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  • Evan Santo


    I’m not a racist but I recognize what the problems in the Islamic World are. It is plain for anyone to see. They simply do irrational things because there is no personal responsibility at all. That is the crux of all our problems. This may make them incompatible with all our notions of governance. It is sad but quite possibly true.

  • Evan Santo

    Oh and Kevin, just to balance the table for you – Asians don’t seem to have a problem with Western notions of government because they have a very well-developed notion of personal responsibility. As you might guess, I’m not Asian. I have no untoward feelings for any race, this is just simple observation.

  • MQ

    I’ll say straight up: I thought this war was foolish from the start, and continue to think so.

    Problems with things like ROE are symptomatic of the basic unwinability of the war. Our goals are strategically incoherent. If you set aside the “Saddam can threaten us with WMD” justification for the war (which I do not think was ever believable), the reason for this war was to establish a friendly democracy in the Middle East. Seeing this example would get the Muslim world to favor the U.S. over Al Qaeda. In other words, we have basically invaded another country in order to get the people we are invading to like us. That is the strategic goal. The ROE reflect that. But the goal makes no sense. Putting over a hundred thousand heavily armed young people, trained to kill, into an alien culture where they do not even speak the language, is not a recipe for being liked.

    If we want to maximize force protection, I would suggest bringing the troops back to the U.S. where no one is shooting at them. This would be the best course of all, and would immediately solve all ROE issues.

  • Joel Leggett

    The concern about individual self defense being a subset of unit self defense is extremely misplaced. Individual self defense has always been a subset of unit self defense, and it should be. This is due to the simple fact that commanders must always have the ultimate authority over when to engage the enemy. For instance, say a commander puts some Marines out in a forward OP/LP in order to find out when an enemy unit is approaching. He may want those Marines to stay in position and hold their fire even if the enemy gets dangerously close to the OP/LP. He may want to do this in order to draw the enemy in for ambush or to simply attack them from a more advantageous position. However, if individual self defense took priority over unit self defense he would not have the authority to order those Marines to hold their fire if they felt threatened. Simply put, if commanders are to have the responsibility of engaging the enemy they have to have the authority to enforce fire discipline. If the subjective opinion of the Marine or soldier on the ground supersedes the commander’s authority over fire discipline then the commander’s ability to accomplish the mission is seriously degraded.

    In my experience, it is not the ROE that is putting Marines and Soldiers at unnecessary risk, it is sea-lawyer barracks rumors about what will happen if you make an honest mistake. I can’t speak for other units in other branches of service. However, as a Marine stationed in Iraq I can say that my unit always resolves any reasonable doubt in favor of the individual Marine on the ground.

  • Herschel Smith


    I am glad to hear your last sentence. But you imagine a difference of opinion where there isn’t one. I agree with every word you said about placement of troops to draw the enemy in, for instance. I also understand about fire and muzzle discipline.

    This is not what I refer to. More to the point, you are correct, it has always been this way. Given this, there was no need to amend the ROE under revision .01B

    Finally, none of this makes the issue go away of moral affects on the troops. In order words, nothing you said makes the words of the NCOs I cite above any less compelling.

  • Herschel Smith

    Sorry, one final thing. I usually require that anyone claiming to be military send me an e-mail at the address found on the web site so that I can verify the network domain.

  • marc

    thank you everyone from an interested and grateful civilian. I think it’s amazing that a forum such as this exists. A quick question — is there any good research or are there any good books comparing different ROEs? And is there any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise that the game-theory exercises the upper level military folks must engage in have any bearing in reality?

  • Joel Leggett

    Although I entered my email address when I posted my comment I have sent you a confirmation email.

  • jn_grande

    Posted as anonymous here before.

    ROE is a complicated matter and I change my mind about it every day. However, as far as that first NCO goes in Iraq, the example given is terrible. We didn’t once get hit by suicide vbieds in the year we were there (Kirkuk). The Iraqis did, not us. And I don’t think there’s been a single suicide vbied filled with a family in the whole of Iraq. Cars got too close to convoys all the time, and as a gunner, if I saw one or two males in the car, I was behind my 50 aiming at the windshield until they backed off. If they’re so close that you can throw a bottle or rocks, you’d be f*d up if it was an actual IED. However, families I wouldn’t bother sighting down, just throw stuff to get them to back off. Your gunner should have had the presence of mind to do the same and not get spooked by every family driving up on him. As for the rocks and such, we only got those taken away because of degenerates who enjoyed throwing them at cars, like it was some kind of game, without any thought as to who could get hurt and such. The same people who liked to run over dogs and wreck cars and knock them off the road, laughing about it later. Oh, and who thought it was a good idea to fire warning bursts of 240’s and 50’s at street level, again without thinking what’s downrange. Happened all the time and it really pissed me off.

    To me, that’s what ROE is really about, to prevent some poor slob from blowing away a family. In the unit, it was a lot of paperwork for the higher ups, but if you could justify it, your patrol would back you up and even lie (i.e. about all the steps you took and such) so you didn’t get in trouble. Yeah, a lot of guys including me worried about it, but ultimately, you shot when you felt the need to shoot. And speaking to friends who served in other places, it adjusted based on enemy presence in the AO you were based.

    Sorry this isn’t so coherent, I don’t have much time to post.

    [Edited: Before I allow allegations such as this to continue, you need to send me proof of identity.  Your e-mail address is not associated with a military network domain.  All future comments will be deleted until you do.  Sorry, but a commenter can claim to be anyone or to have had any experience – HPS]

  • Martin


    Leaving would resolve the ROE issue, of course. It would also validate OBL’s remark about the paper tiger.

    It would probably also lead to the slaughter of a couple of million Sunnis, and a refugee crisis that makes the former Yugoslavia look like a vicar’s tea party. Oh, and would likely touch off a civil war (an actual one, not the NBC variety), and possibly a regional war (how long, just to posit a single example, do you think the Kurds would stay out of Southern Turkey once they get to keep all their own oil money?).

    That’s not a formula for being liked in the middle east either.

    We have to increase our troops’ ability to kill bad guys, and give them the benefit of the doubt in all cases.

    We need to show resolve, and a determination to win. THAT’s what does the talking in that neck of the woods.

  • Herschel Smith

    The individual named Kevin has been marked as spam.

  • dw

    Tell us of a major war which was won without killing 1M of the enemy. Tell us of a major war which was won when anyone gave a good goddamn about enemy civilians.

    You can’t, because such a war is unwinnable.

    Long lasting insurgencies exist when the nominal winner has failed to kill the enemy. Over history, this was usually because they lacked the means. Since WWII, we’ve encountered another weakness: lack of will.

    We failed to kill the enemy in Korea, and the war basically goes on.

    We failed to kill the enemy in Viet Nam, and lost.

    We’re now failing to kill the enemy in Iraq, and are headed for defeat.

    Someone else pointed out, it’s absurd to invade a country to get them to like you. In modern times, you invade a country to crush whatever threat they pose (historically you invaded to seize territory or slaves or economic resources, in addition to crushing threats). If the insurgency in Iraq remains a threat, that threat should be crushed, with concern for the civilian population about like we were concerned for Japanese and German civilians during WWII.

  • Uncultured Barbarian

    Herschel, excellent post. kevin is a liar. Period. Hey, kevin, in response to your post # 21—you are correct. This post does contain some simple-minded, dolty remarks, including all of yours. The garbage we fight have one goal, to kill us. It’s that SIMPLE. We kill them first. It’s that SIMPLE. To refer to the enemy as a “counterinsurgency” is a one-word lie. As to your comment #25. HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!!! Mindlessly wandering into the middle of a MILITARY CONVOY is like mindlessly wandering into a raging housefire. Anyone that stupid probably needs killing. So tell me, is that how your mind works?

  • chickenhawk like Cheney


    OBL can think whatever he wants. Let him stick his head up, and we’ll see how long he’s calling us a paper tiger. But that doesn’t mean we have to stay on the streets over there forever, either.

    Iraq’s about to be split up, and we need to go along with this process. And if they want to kill each other, we’ll have to allow them to do so. As long as the 3 new little “countries” stay within behavioral boundaries we can accept, then that’s probably the best we’re gonna get from this situation. How long do you want the US military over there getting shot at, with no end in sight? Something’s gotta give here.

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  • Amador

    First, let me say that no soldier should ever be sent to prison for killing. We teach boys to obey their superiors without question, and we teach then to kill. Logically, we should also teach them who to kill, or be responsible for their actions. Therefore, only the commanding officer should see the inside of a prison as a result of official military activity. After discharge, that’s another story.
    Second, Political Correctness is killing us and will kill us if we don’t put a sudden stop to it. When Patton slapped a coward in WW2, the absurdity of pulling him out of service was as assinine a move as ever made. Mark Clark lost 8,000 men on the way to Rome, where Patton would have had breakfast with the Pope rather than ‘dig in’ at Anzio.
    May I remind you, those 8,000 men were fathers, brothers, and sons of American citizens. I’m sure those facts are not presented to the students at West Point. What about the fact that Sherman burned, broke, stole, or killed everything he could find between Atlanta and Savanah. Like the 2 nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, Sherman’s march was designed to bring the war to an end and therefore save some lives.
    Third, the enemy must know defeat. Without the experience of defeat, the enemy simply goes to ground like you and I would if a foreign army overran our borders. If they failed to find our rifles, we would plan a war of attrition, and pass it on to our children. Underground ammunition manufacture, secret handshakes, and a real chain of command would arise. Extreme violence in war does two things. Neither has been done in Iraq. First, it gets their attention, and respect. Second, it eliminates potential fighters and makes cowards out of their relatives. Logically, one generation of males must be rendered ineffective while we install our puppets and build a spy ring to control their intentions. The alternative is to just leave after the burning, breaking and killing. At any rate, PC SOLDIERING SHOULD NEVER BE ALLOWED. That should be chiseled over the entrance to the Pentagon.
    This lesson must be learned or there will be no tomorrow for freedom, liberty, justice, and equality.

  • Herschel Smith

    #40, UB:

    Thanks. I spammed “Kevin” not because he said things that were contoversial (many people have done that). I am okay with controversy. I spammed him because he made personal attacks in a short-lived comment (I got rid of it about as soon as it hit). I don’t allow personal attacks, and as it turns out, Kevin was just a troll. How sad for him. He will now have to go find some other place to troll around and spew venom.

  • Wolf Pangloss

    Seems to me as a very interested, non-military observer whose fondest wish would be for Iraq to be used as a springboard for war on Iran and Syria, thus doing a lot more to reduce the insurgency than playing whack-a-mole in Haditha does, that the ROE get blamed for the real problems which are:

    1. An atmosphere of hostile legal investigations by the military of its own soldiers. The solution to this is not to fix the ROE. The solution is to fix the way military legal investigations work.

    2. Rumors and gossip about the hostile legal system. The solution is to forestall gossip and rumors with plenty of accurate & positive information and to punish gossips with undesirable duties.

    Back to your regularly scheduled program.

  • Drew Kelley

    Question: Would the ROE be different if members of JAG-Corp first had to pull a tour as a platoon-leader?

  • Herschel Smith

    #45 and #46: Good points, both of you. I still think that ROE could use some tweeking (more freedom for Marine countersnipers, and amendment back to revision .01A). I think it would be a marvelous idea to stick JAGs in a platoon prior to going to JAG-Corps. But platoon leader? Whew! Might have trouble there.

  • Mike Rentner


    Marine JAG’s are trained in infantry tactics to the same level as any other Marine Corps officer, excepting those that get more specialized training as infantry officers.

    That is, any Marine officer can be a platoon commander (or battalion commander for that matter) in a pinch, including JAG’s who are also line officers. That’s our philosophy, every Marine is a rifleman, and the corollary is that every Marine Officer is a potential infantry officer. JAG’s are not line officers in the Navy, and I don’t know about the other services, but they are in the USMC. My battalion overseas had two officers that happened to be both infantry officers and JAG’s (one of whom was the weapons company commander), as did the battalion we relieved, if I’m not mistaken.

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  • Herschel Smith


    Yes. And I have to tell you, I hold Gen. Al Gray in iconic status. He is the one who brought back the warrior ethos. I know all about the quals that every Marine has to go through in boot. I had him autograph his picture and write a note of congratulations to my son upon graduation from boot.

    Still, and I am not telling you something you don’t already know, there is a difference between MOS 0311 and a POAG. The things I know about my son’s existence and how Marines live and what they do to each other and with each other, and training accidents, etc., I can NEVER blog on. I wouldn’t put the Marines or my son at risk like this.

    But my point is that while other MOS go to war in their specific billets, there is something different about Marine infantry. The hardest of hard core. And this difference starts when some go to MCT and others go to SOI.

    But … I have no knowledge of the training that officers go through at Quantico. I suppose you are saying that there is no essential difference in the training: an officer is an officer.

    Still, the officers in infantry live with the grunts in infantry. Still seems to me that there is a difference.

    BTW, right upon graduation from SOI, Daniel and his buddies learned that there was a major revamping to come for boot. Instead of 13 weeks, it is dropping back to 8, they are dropping the crucible and BWT, and SOI is expanding in length. Don’t know, haven’t heard anything about it since then.


  • Bruce M

    Mike Rentner makes a good point about the examples cited.

    They allow judgment calls in the particular situations. And making the ROE more permissive would still leave an ROE of some kind in place. And the same problems would occur if a soldier winds up shooting up a car and killing a whole family. The repercussions would still be largely the same. I would think the “CNN problem” would be less than the problem of their relatives looking for revenge or at least becoming far more hostile to the Americans.

    But one problem I have with the discussions we’ve been seeing lately in various forums about the supposedly restrictive ROE is that it’s almost impossible for anyone not familiar with the specific situation to evaluate them. Whether it’s sympathizing with the complaint or rejecting it. The ROE are very specific and differ from one setting to another.

    Plus, as one of the NCOs quoted here observed, the soldiers who have to face those difficult choices like the first NCO you quote here faced in many cases may not even have seen the actual written ROE. That doesn’t invalidate these anecdotal complaints. But it does mean that the particular complaints could have more to do with the unit’s commanders than with the ROE as such. As compelling as these complaints sometimes sound, it really is virtually impossible to make an honest judgment on them without on-the-spot knowledge of the situation.

    Unfortunately, these stories are often misused to argue vaguely for being “tougher”.

    But it’s hard to see how these ROE complaints can be an argument for anything unless the person complaining states clearly what their alternative is? In the case of the first NCO example here, is he suggesting it’s a bad idea to show a warning sign? Exactly how would he change the ROE for the type of situation he describes so that the choices would be easier? Unless we know what he’s actually suggesting as an alternative, it’s just a complaint that we may find sympathetic. But it’s hard to see how anyone could make a serious judgment about the complaint’s validity just based on what examples like these present.

    Mike Rentner also begins his comment with a very worthwhile observation: knowing about faults in the ROE – even if we have enough information to make some kind of informed judgment – doesn’t really tell you much about the broader conduct of the war.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    My comment is a question, actually. Maybe I’m going to pass as a naïve person, but I have been sincerely taken aback when I read:

    “(….)You notice a male driver who appears to be gripping the wheel a little too tight and who has beads of sweat forming on his brow. You realize that this could be trouble. But… to complicate the matter, there is a woman (presumably his wife) and 4 children in the car as well.?

    Does it truly happen sometimes that an Iraqi goes as far as scarifying wife and children in a suicide attack (against a vehicle or anything else), and are there such reported known cases?

    I’m not military, not journalist, not activist, not anti-war protester or else. I find your blog as interesting as enlightening, and I try to get a better understanding of the conditions in which counterinsurgency is carried on there.

    Thank you.

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  • ParatrooperJJ

    In Ohio, as in most states, police officers are allowed to shoot escaping prisoners and to shoot fleeing suspects of violent felonies.


    I worked as a contract civilian in Kuwait during the 1990’s as a security officer. There were two different sets of rules issued, the Rules of Engagement, and another card spelling out the Use of Force or some such title. Rules of Engagement are warfighting rules–upon declaration of hostilities, you will immediately engage any identified hostiles out to maximum detection range with your most powerful weapons system UNLESS these hostiles are incapable of hostile action (injured, sick, dead) or are attempting to surrender. Unique to America, the Use of Force rules begin with “nothing in these rules limits your right to take appropriate action to defend yourself and your unit.” This is a peacekeeping rulebook, and you are supposed to use minimum force to keep the peace or compel compliance. ROE=maximum force to defeat hostile enemy forces; warfighting. UoF=minimum force to maintain order: peacekeeping.

    It’s no wonder that the “ROE” seem two-faced. There are two seperate rule books,a nd it hasn’t been made clear to the people on the front line what these rules are all about. It’s like switching rules between touch football and full-tackle, but not informing the players.

  • Mike Rentner


    You’re saying that on the basis of meeting a former commandant, that you know what Marine training is like? And then you admit you have little idea what officer training is like. I think this is symptomatic of your approach to the ROE. You think you know what you’re talking about, you use a nice vocabulary and good grammar, and that makes others think you really do know what you’re talking about.

    Marine infantry officers get a lot of extra infantry training mostly for different climates, different tactics, and more practice using combined arms, but all Marine officers get thoroughly trained in being a basically competent infantry officer. Being an infantry specialist doesn’t make someone a superman, it just means he has that specialty. (Not that long ago, up to the late 1970’s I believe, we didn’t even have extra training for infantry officers, all officers are expected to serve as infantry at any time at the drop of a hat.)

    Many other specialties get substantial field experience too. If you’ll notice, many of the ROE we’re discussing impact motor transport, logistics, communications, etc. Every Marine in Iraq is faced with the ROE to one extent or another. JAG’s go out in the field on operations too, to assist with community relations and other reasons.

    Your incorrect and hollywood-stereotypical view of the ability of Marine JAG’s to understand combat arms is indicative of your entire approach to this subject. You don’t know what you’re talking about, but you met someone who might.

  • Herschel Smith


    You just can’t help but want to fight when there is no fight to be had. Honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking about. The subject was not ROE in the previous comment to which you respond. The subject was what difference there might or might not be between MOS and things that I didn’t claim to know about how officer training transpired and what went on there.

    I substantially concurred with your observation that every Marine is a rifleman. I hold Al Gray in high esteem for this and other reasons (specifically, things like BWT which I noted might be dropped from boot). I don’t think I disagreed with anything you said in the comment, except to question how officer training happens and to wonder about a comparison and contrast with SOI and MCT (I don’t claim to know anything about officer training, and know about SOI only what my son told me, and, for that matter, know about being in the fleet only what my son tells me). In that sense, anything that I pick up from my son, and the things I learn about the USMC from him, causes the blog to be evolutionary. It grows and hopefully becomes more accurate and better, with more clear and meaningful observations about a son who is soon to go off to war. Anything I pick up from the MSM or other sources, you have access to just like I do.

    Concerning ROE, I think you need to take up your objections with the NCOs who sent me their stories. I didn’t fabricate them. I only reported them. You seem to think that made them up. Otherwise, I cannot understand why you would be arguing with me.

    So what is it … exactly … that you are trying to pick a fight about when I concurred with what you said? Why would you want to fight over agreement? Rational people don’t do that.

    As for the comparison and contrast I hinted at between SOI/MCT and officer training at Quantico, Mike, I don’t mean to demean you here, but you need to read on a little more sophisticated level. Hint. I intentionally gave you a wide open door to opine with enthusiasm and teach us all something about the officer training. Instead, you tried to pick a fight and tell me that I didn’t know about the training, which, ironically, is the very thing I said to you by hinting that you could teach us all.

    As strong suggestions for commenting on this site in the future, the following kinds of statements are to be avoided:

    “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” which may or may not be true, but is not germane when I report on the story that someone else gave me.

    In lieu of this, more discerning people would want to say things like:

    “I disagree with your characterization of so-and-so, and here is why.”

    I simply don’t have a felt-need to give people a forum to be discourteous. We have discussed this before, Mike. It looks like it didn’t take, so I am trying one more time. You can disagree any time. You cannot be discourteous. That’s the rule.

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  • Russ


    Yes, the bad guys do put women and children in the cars with them in Iraq. I saw it outside of Hillah. They do this for a few reasons:

    1. They know our ROE and but don’t truly understand it all the time. They hope it means that we won’t shoot at them as they approach, not understanding that doing what they are doing strips them of non-combatent status. We are all taught that it is the bad guys who are putting the civilians at risk by their actions, not us.

    2. They want to use it as a propoganda weapon and talk about how we shoot women and children.

    3. They want to get investigations launched and use our own ROE against us. Even if the soldier is cleared, he’ll be much more hesitant to shoot next time, and that increases the possibility they can inflict more casualties next time.

  • Herschel Smith


    Some clarity of thought. Thank you. And thus, the point of the post. By the way, thanks for the exchange of e-mail.

  • Fred Beloit

    I’ve been hoping to find an article like this for a long time. Suspicions confirmed. No more troops needed. This disgraceful document,ie the ROE, must be revised if we really want to “win”. One thought, this material concerns only defensive actions. What about offensive operations. I shudder to think about it.

  • Russ


    Just read the “About” page for the first time. I know this is OT, but I’m from Charlotte as well. Nice place. Just wish they could elect a city council w/o its head up its rear.

  • Dave N.

    I’ve never been in the military, and I’m not a lawyer, but as just an American who supports the troops (and the mission, and the President), I find this discussion very valuable, and also very disturbing.

    One problem is the bit about having a 50-page secret ROE that most troops can’t see, and then a one-page summary that’s given to the soldiers and Marines, along with some lectures.

    Can anyone explain whether, if there’s an incident or innocents get killed, and there’s an investigation, are the troops judged against the secret 50 pages, or the one sheet they were given? Are there any audio recordings kept of all the oral briefings or instruction on ROE that the troops are given, so it’s not just a he-said-she-said farce, with some lawyers saying they said one thing, and the troops saying they heard another?

    I don’t much trust anything legally important if I haven’t gotten it in writing. Unless lawyers in the military are radically different from lawyers in civilian life, I’d basically want everything I got from them to be in writing. In business, if a person, especially a lawyer, insists on doing things orally, and not putting it in writing, it’s likely because they know it’ll look stupid or wrong, so they don’t want any evidence of it.

    It seems like just the policy as described, of having a secret ROE that the troops can’t see, and then substituting mostly oral instruction in critical legal matters, is set up to result in a lack of trust on the part of the troops, as a natural consequence of such a policy, regardless if that consequence is unintended.

    The obvious solution to this would be to have the entire ROE policy be at a level of classification so that the troops can each have a copy. Word it and construct it such that even if the enemy also reads it, it doesn’t help them any. (Don’t we want the Iraqi people to understand the rules anyway, so they’ll know what not to do? Like if they do X, the Americans will shoot. Don’t we want everybody to be clear on that?)

    By the way, in wars that America won, like WWII, how many pages were the ROE? How often were they updated? Obviously in the days of Morse Code and mechanical typewriters, American officers somehow managed to correctly inform our troops often enough to get the job done satisfactorily. Perhaps we could pull out the ROE that were used for, say, the liberation of Manila in 1945, out of a file cabinet in the Smithsonian, and use that for Iraq. Have the Pentagon lawyers do something else until the war is over.

    There is also the issue that the troops may worry that they won’t get fair treatment in the case of a bad incident. The Marines and sailor being prosecuted for the Haditha incident come to mind. Nobody knows if they’re being treated fairly, or being railroaded for political or careerist reasons. We’ve already had one Congressman pronounce them guilty, for heaven’s sakes. And that Congressman is now in the majority, and almost became Majority Leader. Does anyone seriously doubt that it might be “career-limiting” to be the military lawyer who failed to get a conviction, by whatever means necessary, of troops who have already been declared guilty by such a powerful Congressman?

    I have an idea how to restore the confidence of soldiers and Marines who may become hesitant to react as they need to, due to this fear of becoming court-martial fodder in a political freakshow. We owe it to them to prove to them that, for example, they will never be lied to during any interrogation, that they will never be intimidated or coerced into a false confession to a charge, or a false accusation of a comrade, just to satisfy the needs of some politically pre-determined outcome, or to advance or protect the career of anyone. (And of course, such a coerced confession would contain a line stating that the confession was not coerced. You have to give the lawyers some credit.)

    The military should release to the public the videos of all the interrogations of these Marines and sailor held in the Haditha incident, as well as videos of all other contacts that the accused have had with prosecutors, investigators, and anyone else regarding their case. Then we will be able to see for ourselves that they have had proper legal representation at all times during the investigation, that they have been treated properly at all times, that they have never been lied to in any way, that they have never been intimidated, coerced, harassed, or exhausted in the course of the interrogations, and that the proceedings, regardless of outcome, are being conducted in a decent fashion that will earn respect, and set at ease the mind of the public and of our troops in the field.

    The absense of such a release of the videos on the Internet, however, would have the opposite effect. If the military is running some kind of star chamber inquisition, to achieve a politically predetermined result, well, they’d never let the video proof out. Refusal to release the videos would be certain to raise suspicions among the general public, and among the troops, that this is what is going on, that the interrogation and court martial process is not intended to get at the truth and achieve a just conclusion, it’s just a PC runaround.

    Now, if it is “policy” not to videotape the interrogations, which (taping) is the surest, cheapest and simplest way to ensure that the record of the interrogation accurately reflects what was actually said during the interrogation, for later purposes in the trial, such a policy would likewise raise big red flags, that the purpose of the investigation is not the determination of factual truth, but something else. So a claim of “no video to show” would raise exactly the same suspicions as simply refusing to release it, or else point to utter incompetence on the part of the military lawyers and those who set and approved such a policy. To fail to make tapes of interrogations is simply a crude but effective method of enabling the fabrication or distortion of statements.

    So that’s my suggestion, release the videos of everything the accused in the Haditha case have been through, from start to finish. Not like people in the military have time to watch any of it, but concerned citizens will, and word will quickly get back to the troops as to whether they have nothing to fear from the ROEs and aftermath of an incident as long as they do their part. Or word will get back that the system is hosed.

    If the videos don’t come out, and some of those Marines and sailor are convicted, especially by statements of some of their comrades having turned on them during interrogation, we’ll all expect an official announcement that “the system works” and “only troublemakers complain,” to discredit any statements the convicted may make, protesting the process as unjust. The media will be in ecstacy over having some “war criminals” to talk about. A Congressman will be happy that his wild claims have been “vindicated by a fair court martial.” And the troops in Iraq will have even less confidence in what they’re being told, and even more tendency to hesitate in a critical moment.

    The best way to restore the troops’ confidence, and the American people’s, would be for the Pentagon to do the honest thing, the honorable thing, and release the videos.

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  • Dominique R. Poirier

    thank you for your prompt and enlightening answer. I appreciate it.

  • Curt


    Sorry your wrong on this account. The Supreme court ruled over 20 years ago that police officers may only fire on a fleeing felon if “”the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” as I stated in my first comment. Nothing has changed to now allow police to fire on any fleeing felon.

  • Tobias Magan

    I haven’t been to Iraq yet, but I have done rotations in Bosnia and Kosovo. I’ve also studied a little bit of military history.

    One of the after-action lessons of Vietnam is that loose rules of engagement and excessive use of force create more insurgents, more resentment in the population.

    Che Guevara says the same thing in _Guerilla Warfare_. His basic tactic is for the insurgents to provoke the government into over-reaction, creating resentment in the population and support for the insurgency.

    As Robert B said in Post 11, killing an Iraqi makes his family into anti-Americans. I saw this dynamic in Kosovo. Our catch-22 is how to kill all the insurgents necessary, but nobody else. Subduing and capturing is preferable to killing, if you have the time and means to do so.

    The ROE as cited by the NCOs above has many cumbersome steps in escalation of force, which take time that you may not have. I think a more simple, general rule would be more effective – “Don’t kill anybody that you don’t have to.”

    Tobias Magan

  • Charlie B.

    Tobias, most of the troops understand that last line. Really, we do. Commanders need to make sure that their troops understand that it really is just that simple, and then have the balls to protect their men when any grey areas crop up. Of course, I believe our guys show remarkable discretion and wisdom in use of force issues every single day. What is remarkable is not the frequency of incidents, but the rarity of incidents, especially given the nature of the fighting we are seeing over there.

  • P. Jennings

    I find it interesting that people on this page are using what I call the “infinite insurgent” idea. It seems to some people that there is a somehow bottomless pool of young muslims “over there” who can and will become harmfully active against us and our interests once we carry out certain actions. This is not the case, for two main reasons. Firstly, there actually are not infinitely many islamic fundamentalists, who can be rallied to attack us. Thus, we can kill them as they come, and we can kill them all. That is the nature of reality: we CAN eradicate all of them because they are, and must be, of finite numbers. It just takes a lot of time, lead, and money to do so… not to mention American casualties.
    Secondly, the causal link between carrying out military actions and the resulting non-combatant casualties, and opposing casualties for that matter, and the “creation” of new jihadies is not clear. One does not just suddenly go from being a peace-loving, rational person to someone dedicated to nihilisitic death-mongering. Hippies don’t become Marines, and regular people don’t just take up insurgent militancy. The people who fight against us now would be doing so whether or not we were ‘over there’ – maybe not on the same street that we fight on now, but they would none-the-less still be waging war against us. If having someone they know or love killed while engaged in paramilitary opperations against the US is going to make them fight us, they probably already ARE fighting us, or at the very least aiding and abetting our foes. This is tantamount to saying that killing SS troops in Normandy is going to make the Nazis try to kill us: it’s sheer nonsense because the people who are going to be affected are ALREADY trying to kill us.
    On a final note, as a potential USMC JAG candidate, I resent the idea expressed above that Marine JAGs are not capable of combat or combat leadership. Even JAGs get deployed in the Corps, for there are two kinds of Marines: those depoyed and those preparing to deploy.

  • Michael Smith


    You claim that “loose rules of engagement and excessive use of force” in a conflict creates greater opposition. But why does this only apply to one side, namely the Americans?

    Why is it that excessive use of force by Americans creates more opposition, but excessive use of force by the insurgents — who have NO rules of engagement and respect NO limits on the use of force — why doesn’t this create even greater resistance to the insurgency?

    Why is it the case that if an Iraqi is killed by Americans his family is assumed to become anti-American and join the insurgency — but when insurgents kill Iraqis, they do not become anti-insurgent and join the American effort to stop the insurgency?

    If the battle for the “hearts and minds of the Iraqis” is to be won by the side showing the greatest restraint, then that battle should have been over years ago. The insurgents and terrorists show ZERO restraint.

    And why should we pay attention to anything written by Che Guevara? When he struck out on his own, he was an utter and total failure as a “revolutionary”.

  • Charlie B.

    P. Jennings, we don’t have to create jihadists to create insurgents. The majority of the insurgents over there are not motivated by religious extremism. Some are motivated by nationalism, some are motivated by money, and some are motivated by a desire for revenge. Many average Iraqis are sitting on the fence about the U.S. occupation, if a close family member is killed by indiscriminate fire then they may decide to take the family AK and crank off a round at a Coalition patrol. The majority of these attacks are not effective, but eventually some of them get lucky.

    Michael, we have seen some tribes start to rise up against the insurgency. Originally it was predominantly Shi’a rising up against the Sunni-dominated insurgency, but we are starting to see Sunni groups join the fight as well. However, it is important to note that these groups are not necessarily pro-American or pro-government, but just anti-insurgent. We will have to be careful, Latin American revolutions are rife with examples of similar groups becoming as bad or worse than the insurgents they were created to fight. The Colombian AUC is an excellent example. Also, one tool the insurgents use that we don’t is intimidation. They target people that cooperate with the Coalition, or target their family. This is very effective in keeping the average Iraqi at bay. They don’t really have to win the hearts and minds of the population, they just have to prevent us from winning them. That’s the beauty of insurgency, you don’t have to win, you just have to not lose.

  • Tobias Magan

    P Jennings – There is a finite pool of population. Some of them are pro-American, some are anti-American, but most are somewhere in between. Most of the in-betweens have little interest in fighting; they want to get back to normal life in a stable country. But, if provoked, they will fight, or support one side or the other. Hippies don’t become Marines overnight, but they do become rock throwing hippies, or bomb making hippies.

    Michael Smith – I don’t disagree with most of your points. Why do beatings by loansharks get covered up, while beatings by police provoke riots? This question is worth further study.

    Che may have been a failure, but his ideas were widely distributed in the Communist world. Guerilla Warfare is a brilliantly simple book on how to run an insurgency. Within that plan, we can find the way to beat the plan. Muslim insurgents will get more of their military ideas from the Koran, but Che’s ideas can be seen in what is happening.

  • dw

    P Jennings:
    You overlook a major motivator: fear.

    If one side threatens to kill you if you decline participation, while the ther side promises to respect you unless they catch you red handed, which side will you join? Observe you don’t have a choice of actual disinvolvment, because asseting such a “right” will get you killed.

  • B Newman

    What’s wrong with the HISTORIC number one Rule of Engagement WIN !!!!!!!

  • Dave N.

    P. Jennings, comment 69, thank you for your service. It is true, as you say, that there are not infinite jihadis. There are not infinite numbers of any group of people.
    However, there are over 1.2 billion Islamic people, the group from which jihadis emerge, and their birthrate on average is higher than in many nominally “Christian” countries, namely the countries of Europe.
    The question is not whether there is an infinite number of them, of course there is not. The question is, is the pool of jihadis being depleted faster than new jihadis are being produced? If you claim that they are, please point the rest of us to some source of information that would support this claim.
    I am not one of those who thinks that our actions are “causing people to join the jihad” or similar nonsense.
    I’m simply trying to look at the demographics of the situation, and seeking hard data about it.

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  • http://- dolphin

    [This comment is deleted for being completely incoherent – HS] 

  • Theo Farrell

    Important and very useful to have discussion on ROEs – they are crucial to the conduct of COIN. I’m sure there is some truth to ROEs serving domestic political purposes – to protect the military back home against political fall-out from the conduct of the campaign. And, equally, because this is a war being waged by a professional army (albeit with a heavy burden falling on reservists and the national guard), the public are perhaps less atuned to the sacrifices being made by service personnel and their families (tho’ I think this problem is far more acute in Britain than in the United States). All that said, adherence to clear ROEs serves campaign objectives, and so is in the interest of forces in the field. This is the point that is stressed time and again to Brit forces operating in Iraq. Because this is a COIN campaign, and the objective is WHAM, the tactical advantage of using overwhelming force must be weighed against the operational advantage of demonstrating restraint. As I understand it (from a briefing by the head of British Army legal service) the Brit ROE for Iraq is benchmarked against the criminal law of England and Wales, which permits lethal use of force in self-defence. The general view of British commanders is that the campaign is first and foremost about winning over Iraqis – indeed, it cannot be won by killing insurgents. Thus military logic, and not legal requirement or ethical nicely, is driving a cautious attitude to the deployment of lethal force.

    [Editorial comment: Thanks Theo.  I responded at the same time to both this comment and the one left at my article Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments, HPS]

  • Morgan Wilson

    Rules of engagment only help the enemy. Having served in Vietnam I know how insane rules of engagement are. Imagine WW2 being fought with rules of engagement. It would have been a night mare to say the least. No war is winnable when restrictions (rules of engagment) are put upon those tasked to fight.

    The enemy does not have rules of engagement and niether should our troops. The war in Iraq is no different from Vietnam in that it is not possible to know who is friendly who is not. One cannot tell friend from foe simply by looking.

    Either our troops are free to fight this war to win and the Generals are free to execute the war in such a manner as to win without the interference of civilians in Washington who have no idea what ccombat is like or we will in the end lose just as we did in Vietnam.

    During Vietnam we where not allowed to win because of President Johnson and then Sec of Defence, Robert MacNamara micro management of the war. They put restrictions on how the war was to be fought.

    In the end, all America had to show for the years spent fighting in Vietnam is 58,000 dead and many MIA’s. All in vain.

    Many say we did not loose in Vietman. I ask, what is the difference if one is defeated by arms or they simply turn tail and run as we did in Vietnam. This am afraid is what will happen again in Iraq.

  • Martinez

    This is great my fellow grunts and pog’s dissing the corrupt ROE. Yah! we finally have a voice. Kill em All!

  • Martinez

    The land of ROE is a terrorist paradise, that’s were they play and kill as many of us as they can. They need to take our brothers out of Leavenworth and let them fight. Guaranteed we’ll be home in a couple of months.

  • http://none Charlie Adams

    Thank you for the reports concerning the Haditha incident. The New York Times reporters devoted five columns to the Haditha incident with zero lines concerning Rules of Engagement. Why did the reporters not publish even the single page of ROE? Why did the reporters include so many atrocity details and exclude ROE? Pulitzer Prize at the expense of honorable United States Marines who were just performing their Marine Corp duty? Mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sisters, children made to suffer so reporters receive recognition! How disgusting.

  • Tripp Williams

    I have read all of the posts here and have to say this is a great discussion.
    I understand that there is a CNN factor, but that is irrelevant because even with restrictive rules of engagement, CNN will always try to make the military look bad as we have seen in Iraq; so, we might as well give them something to talk about. CNN should not be a factor in our military decisions. Currently it is and that is why things are going badly.
    As for “creating insurgents”, that is also irrelevant once we decide to invade a country. We can’t make military decisions based on the possibility of making anyone mad at us. I submit that fewer civilians would have died in this war and fewer insurgents created if the military had not been worried about offending anyone. We should be allowed to use overwhelming force as suggested by Amador line 43.Unfortunately, this will never happen under the current administration or any other administration in the foreseeable future.
    So, I think if we are going to shackle our military by not allowing them to blow up mosques, minarets, and Moqtada al-Sadr, we should pull out now and never invade another country again. Maybe just the occasional quick in-and-out like the first war with Iraq would be okay.

  • Herschel Smith

    I usually don’t like the comments to degrade to the level of personal attacks such as the ones in which Mr. Rentner engaged. But in this case it was instructive. Late in the game I come to find out some interesting facts. Mr. Rentner was and is a JAG-in-training.

    How very rich. In his comments above he is plying his trade as a JAG. Let’s see. Three NCOs who collectively have a thousand times as much combat experience as Mr. Rentner versus Mr. Rentner, a JAG.

    The degradation of the comments into personal attacks now becomes clear. I’ll side with the NCOs.

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You are currently reading "The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement", entry #419 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Rules of Engagement,Weapons and Tactics and was published December 13th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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